LINGUIST List 8.757

Tue May 20 1997

Review: Gutknecht&Rolle: Translating by factors

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>

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  1. Sean Golden, Review of Translating by factors

Message 1: Review of Translating by factors

Date: Tue, 20 May 1997 16:04:19 -0400 (EDT)
From: Sean Golden <>
Subject: Review of Translating by factors

Gutknecht, Christoph & Rolle, Lutz J. (1996) TRANSLATING BY FACTORS. State
University of New York Press, Albany. 346 pp. 

Through a thorough case study of the difficulties involved in translating
English language modals into German (and vice-versa), the authors develop a
'state-of-the-art' exposition of translation theory and practice. In order
to do so they must elaborate and elaborate upon theoretical considerations,
taxonomies and methodologies that are both polyvalent and
interdisciplinary. The result is interesting from the point of view of both
linguistics and translation studies. Their bibliography of
linguistic-oriented studies and of translation-oriented studies is both
complete and up to date, and their application of previous studies
successfully integrates a variety of approaches. In addition to being
interdisciplinary, their approach is fully conscious of the complexities
involved in the dynamic, relativistic and multifarious nature of the
translation process, and of the consequent impossibility of ever being able
to establish a static or absolutist model of translation. As a result, they
refer to the possible TL 'renditions' of a given SL text, rather than its
possible 'translations'.

By limiting their case study to modals in English and German, the authors
have chosen a very effective way to limit the linguistic domain under
study. The fact that this domain can be described quite well syntactically
also facilitates the establishment of categories of pragmatic usage, and
this combination provides solid support for componential semantic analysis.
Their analysis of the syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, stylistic, discourse
analysis and text linguistic factors involved in describing, if not always
entirely delimiting, the meaning and usage of modals in both German and
English, is in itself a quite solid study. This study serves to establish a
range of factors that can be applied to the preliminary analysis of modals
as used in a given source language (SL) text, in order to establish a
hierarchy of factors and factor sets and of relations between factors and
their sets, that could orientate the translator's choice of possible
semantic, pragmatic and stylistic meanings to be transferred to a given
possible target language (TL) text. Once the range of possible SL meanings
has been established, the same procedure may be applied to the possible or
permissible uses of modals in the TL in order to establish or to test
strategies for elaborating parallel modal constructions, including the
compatibility or incompatibility of SL and TL modal parallels.

The factors under consideration include invariance factors that would
require a SL feature to appear in the TL rendition, or change factors or
partial change factors that would not; bidirectional factors or
unidirectional factors, and blocking or incompatibility factors that would
make certain TL renditions possible or impossible; compensation factors for
the indeterminacy of the SL text or incompatibility with the TL;
identification factors of SL characteristics and disambiguation factors for
the SL text. In addition there are a series of factors more specifically
related to the process of translation, such as production factors that
contribute to creating the TL text; target factors that condition the
nature or purpose of the TL text according to the client's requirements;
optimising factors and revision factors relating to the style of the TL
text; elliptical factors that allow for omission, divergence factors that
give rise to a one-to-many relation between the SL and TL texts, or
convergence factors that give rise to a many-to-one relation; as well as
transposition and modulation factors. Finally, there are relevant factors
that can be brought to bear on prioritising the alternative strategies that
might be employed to generate one rendition or another.

Their linguistic study of modals serves as the launching pad for a very
complex and complete presentation of factors to be considered in the
translation of modal constructions. This study is so thorough that it could
be usefully applied (as the authors themselves indicate) to the development
of natural language processing (NLP) rules for computational linguistics
parsers of modals (in English and German). At the same time their awareness
of the complex range of ambiguities that may arise in the process of
parsing specific examples of modals ensures that they maintain a very open
and flexible approach. In this respect, it is quite interesting to see how
they integrate both fuzzy set theory and the statistical analysis of
linguistic corpora into their considerations.

The presentation and development of their approach is quite orderly and
clear and the sample texts chosen for illustrative purpose are both
'authentic' (in the sense of being taken from published texts, not texts
invented for the purpose of illustration) and quite to the point. One of
the most refreshing aspects of their study is its avoidance of any dogmatic
considerations that would have to govern translation practice. They do
conclude that 'translating by factors is in fact inevitable' and that
'translating factors turn out to be the felicity conditions for each act of
translating': 'Just as there is a set of felicity conditions defining a
particular kind of monolingual speech act, different sets of translation
factors will characterize different kinds of translation acts. And just as
felicity conditions can be turned into rules for performing speech acts,
factors sets can be made rules according to which the act of translation is
performed'. This possibility of making rules is qualified by the
declaration that 'because each commission involves its own factor set, each
act of translating will follow its individual combination of rules'.

The possible applications of this study are multiple. It could be very
relevant to the study of modals in linguistics. In the case of translation
it could serve, as the authors indicate, to distinguish factors in 1) the
training of translators and interpreters, 2) the assessment of quality and
adequacy of translations, and/or 3) determining the translation of certain
text classes. These distinctions are particularly relevant to the current
state of translation studies, as is their integration into a holistic
approach in this study. Translatology could imply the practice of
translation and its teaching, or the assessment of specific translations,
or the development of a theory of translation. Experts in the current state
of translation studies will find in this book a very thorough, informed and
balanced review of the most important classical and recent texts on
translation as well as an especially apt application of these studies to
sets of case studies of individual texts that are marked by modals, framed
by a well-defined and elaborated general study of modals. Non-experts will
find a very clear introduction to classical and more recent aspects of
translation theory and studies with all of the relevant bibliography and
very clear and understandable examples.

If there is a shortcoming to their approach, and within the terms they have
themselves set for their study there is very little that falls short, I
would venture to say that it is a shortcoming that is still common to text
linguistics approaches in general: the attempt to systematise as much as
possible the analysis of a given text (to the point of making it mechanical
in the case of NLP), requires the elaboration of a set of rules and/or
algorithms for identifying specific characteristics that will overdetermine
the possible usage and/or meaning of a text (and thereby delimit its
possible interpretations and/or renditions). Natural language processing,
which is touched upon tangentially in this study as a field that could
benefit from the kind of rules-based approach to determining the factors
that constrain the meanings of texts that use modals, would represent one
pole of this approach. The opposite pole would be the relativism that
characterises some fields of cultural studies (as exemplified by
deconstructionism in literary studies for instance). Just as the authors
carefully and explicitly avoid falling into the pitfalls of any dogmatic
rules-based approach to translating, I think that the field of text
linguistics in general should be fitted into a more panoramic view of the
role of language as a social phenomenon. I do not think that questions
involving semiotics and ideology, for instance, can be divorced from the
linguistic analysis of a text. Rule-based text linguistics runs the danger
of being too positivistic. 

The authors of this study are conscious of this danger and address the
problem directly in a chapter devoted to the factors involved in the
definition of the translation 'unit', that range from the morpheme to the
entire text, including the entire text's relation to text type or genre and
too still higher levels of sociolect and discourse. They are also quite
open on the subject of text equivalents and the shifting relationship the
links 'translation' to 'adaptation' (or separates them, as the case may be.
The final modest conclusion of this very impressive study is that it might
indicate 'a promising path toward a theory of translating successfully'.
That final adverb is certainly significant and does represent the authors'
taking a stand on some of the issues I have just mentioned. All in all,
this is a very worthwhile text on translation and an important contribution
to the field of translation studies.

Sean Golden is the Dean of the Faculty of Translation & Interpreting of the
Universitat Autonom de Barcelona in Spain. He has published articles on
translator training and on the difficulties of cross-cultural transfer in
the translation of texts widely separated in space and time (such as
ancient Chinese texts in modern European languages), and has edited and
translated collections of Chinese poetry in English and in Catalan.

Sean Golden <>
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